Cities, like people, got their second chances. Few cities had needed one so badly as this. I was left hoping the other cities were doing better with their second opportunities, because nothing I was seeing was very promising, here.
The four teams under the Wardens’ umbrella, now condensed down to three, were divided into those who wanted to return to the way things had been and those who wanted to forge a new way forward, learning from the mistakes of the past. The appeal of returning to a semblance of what we’d had was clear- we missed the foods, the places, the familiar businesses and media, the familiar faces.
We wanted normal and even now every meal, every soap we used, every piece of clothing, it was a reminder of how far from normal we were. It was different and often less because we had less, and we had less of a footing. I wasn’t the only person who felt their stomach sink when we saw the news two weeks after the broken trigger had decimated the reconstruction workers’ protest, saying that the transportation strike was imminent, and that factory workers were contemplating joining in, an across-the-board attempt to demand stability and structure.
It was important, a line had to be drawn and the endless talks about what our government would look like needed to end, but I still saw the reports and I knew the foods, clothes, and routine I wanted were going to have to wait that much longer.
That was one of the prevailing arguments for normal, for going back. This section of the city, this settlement, was the counterpoint.
Brockton Bay had been a port, growing as the industry did. A lot of what made it work as a fledgling port city made New Brockton work as one of our first footholds in Earth Gimel. Lumber, quarrying, some surface level minerals, and geography protected from the harshest sweeps of cold weather from the north.
The industry had become a prominent part of the city, and then the greater industry had outgrown it. Things had reached the point where it was easier to take one big ship and go to Boston and transport goods from there than to take two smaller ships and go to Brockton Bay, even if Brockton Bay was closer to the goods’ destination. The factories and goods went where the ships went, because it wasn’t sensible to ship raw materials from Boston to Brockton Bay to do manufacturing when Boston could handle it.
New Brockton felt like it sat on that brink between relevance and ruin. As a settlement, it was defined by tall buildings and the edifices of heavy industry. There were ships finding their way past each other on the water and big brick buildings with black plumes of smoke rising from their chimneys. Already back to the ways of an era that predated me, cutting corners to produce more at a cost to tomorrow. It was crowded and bursting at the seams, and it had been for a while now, trying to grow despite the constraints of water and mountain around it.
It didn’t escape me that the settlement continued to chug along while the gears and belts of the greater megalopolis were grinding to a stop under strikes and shutdowns.
I walked, rather than fly, because the directions I’d been given mandated it. I suspected it was intentional. I knew there were eyes on me, I knew who some of those eyes belonged to, and I had strong suspicions about others.
The racist graffiti no longer dominated downtown, though I did see some, with half of it partially painted over or altered. Many of the people who had lived and thrived in Brockton Bay had made their way here, after all. An attempt had been made to use wall space, to give the tenements-and-factories color when mirrored windows on skycrapers didn’t steal it from the sky or water. Murals now decorated many of the walls and building fronts, no doubt an attempt to leave less open wall space for the gang tags and symbols. Animals and symbols of humanity like clasped hands covered residential areas. Green trees, branches, and lush mountains painted almost ironically on the sides of factories and power plants.
There were places that mirrored home, in layout and the buildings that had been placed. The area that had been the Towers at the southwest corner of the city was still the Towers. Downtown was still where Downtown had been. A Lord Street stabbed north-to-south through the settlement. Despite the attempts, it wasn’t home. It came from something different.
Such was the counterpoint: in attempting to paint a picture of home, we might distort or create a caricature of that picture. If we rushed it or forced it, we risked making some of the same fundamental mistakes we’d made before, building on cracked foundations.
Seeing the murals, the directions I’d received started to make sense. The path was byzantine. Go the way the wolf and his cubs are looking. A wolf and three cubs that looked like they were made of white smoke were painted on a concrete wall. They stood facing one way, but their heads were looking back.
Walk beneath the leaping rabbit. A rabbit decorated an arch at the edge of a children’s park. The park felt small and lonely amid larger, taller buildings, partially fenced in, with room for two swings, a slide, a sandbox and one basketball half-court that would have to be vacated if a car came through to use the parking garage or if the dump truck came for the dumpster at the back of a building.
Follow the snake.
If I hadn’t known it was a snake, I might not have realized what it was. It was sectioned off, the skeleton of a winding serpent with each vertebrae several feet from the other. Three white pieces along one wall, a white-painted drain cover, then more segments on the wall opposite.
The painted lines of a crosswalk took me across the street. I followed more segments of the snake to reach one of the larger apartment complexes, four identical L-shaped buildings framing a plaza. The bottom floors of the buildings and the lowest floors along the inside of each ‘L’ had some basic stores.
Two years ago, this would have been one of the nicer areas in Earth Gimel, if a little basic. No-name grocery store, clothing store, and home-goods store. It was dated already, and I could already imagine two years from now, when various murals might be faded or defaced, when the metal chairs and tables would be rusted, the stores closed or forgotten. The snake cut through the plaza, which could have seated two hundred people, but currently had six. Any earlier and there would have been people having a late lunch. Any later and it would be time for an early dinner or an after-work bite to eat.
A tunnel led through the body of one of the apartment buildings, leading from plaza to parking lot. The mural of a cat with its back twisting and arching was painted on the walls and roof. Its paws stuck out and across the footpath firmly pressed down on the snake’s neck.
‘Wait’ was the last instruction.
I checked my phone. One message:
I flicked my thumb, spun up the music player and then fished my earbuds out of the pocket of my jacket. I put only one in, so I could keep one ear out for trouble.
I waited long enough for five songs to start and stop. A pair of people arrived at the plaza, got their food, ate, and left, before anything happened. I wondered more than once if I’d been baited to come here as a way of making me waste time.
“You get fifteen minutes.”
I turned my head in the direction of the parking lot, turning off my music and pulling the ear-bud free. I moved my hand in a circle to catch most of the length of cord in a loop.
Tattletale had reversed her costume colors from black on lavender to a more royal purple on black. The same pattern of lines slashing across her costume remained- horizontal line across the upper chest, vertical line slashing down from that, to form a stylized ‘T’. Another horizontal line jutted out from halfway down, followed by another vertical line piercing that line, a smaller ‘t’ nestled under the right arm of its big brother. She wasn’t the type to get photographed or caught clearly on video, and it was painted in such broad strokes that I suspected many people missed it.
It kind of smacked of narcissism, I felt, to wear one’s initials. The more black costume, at least, looked more distinguished. Her hair needed a bit of combing, like it had been tousled by the wind and it hadn’t been fixed.
She was followed by a flurry of small birds that settled on the street by the exit of the alley, and by one bodyguard. The cape was burly, wearing a skintight suit that showed off his muscles, and wore a heavy cloth hood with eyeholes cut out, a series of ‘x’ stitches forming a frowny-face. The lines around his eyes were cut deep. Very weary. He stood with his hands clasped behind him.
On the other side of the tunnel, one of the men that had been eating in the plaza had approached. He now stood with his back ramrod straight, his hands clasped behind him. Very clean cut, hair short and styled, recently shaved, t-shirt, black slacks, and shiny black shoes.
I knew Tattletale knew how my forcefield worked. If the man had a gun, he was potentially a danger to me.
“I like the cat,” I said, pointing. “Subtle.”
“Fifteen minutes, Vicky,” Tattletale said. “It’s going to be a lot less if you want to make small talk. If this becomes you wagging your finger at me and acting all holier-than-thou, I’m walking. I’m busy these days. The only reason I’m giving you time out of my day is hometown respect.”
I fished in my pocket. I pulled out the paper. “This isn’t because you wanted to talk to me?”
“When you’re positioned like I am, you can’t ever do one thing. That message was intended to do a few things at once.”
“I couldn’t help but notice your use of ‘Glory Hole’. Seemed unnecessarily antagonistic.”
She leaned against the wall by the cat’s head and smiled at me. “One, I’m unnecessarily antagonistic. Two, it serves to let you know who the letter is from, it pushes you off balance if you’re in a position to be easily put off balance, which I would want to know about, and finally, three, if the messenger is the type to ignore my instructions, read the letter and try using that phrasing against you, then they’re liable to get hurt. That makes it clear I’m to be listened to. Cleat isn’t the brightest, and he could stand to learn that lesson.”
“And you wanting to talk to me wasn’t one of your reasons?”
“That’s something else entirely. I offered Hollow Point three asks at a significant discount. Three times they can reach out to me and get info, now that they’ve paid. I did this to get them into my debt, to see if they were intelligent enough to ask good questions, and to get them used to paying me money for intel. If that tide somehow rises, I want my fortunes to rise with it. You turned up, and they wanted to know, were you the first of a larger group of heroes who were going to make a move? Who were you, and what role did you play?”
“And your response was this?”
“Multiple purposes, Vicky. Keep up. If you don’t care enough you decide it’s not worth it and leave. Unlikely. You could get a little upset, and in the doing you reveal what you’re up to. Or you’re invested on some level, and you reach out, and the dialogue is opened. If the dialogue is opened, I’m better equipped to deal with you and to deal with Hollow Point. How the dialogue is opened tells me a lot, too. You could have come charging after me. You didn’t. You asked around for how to contact me, used a liaison, and you respected my direction and my rules in my part of the city.”
My part of the city, I thought. Yeah. Impressions verified – New Brockton had retained many of the problems of its predecessor.
“Cedar Point isn’t yours?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We’ll see what it ends up being. For now, you’ve got people of Cleat’s caliber there.”
“I asked around a bit before leaving.”
“The construction work dried up, people are moving elsewhere. Nothing was drawing people in. Then, in the span of a few days, a large number of people buy apartments, homes, and other properties. Never mind the fact that there isn’t a lot going on there. Now a lot of supervillains are making themselves comfortable, figuring out who’ll work with them and who won’t. Some places and people might be open to them doing business, others are already feeling the pressure to leave, scary people hanging around and intimidating them. People of Cleat’s caliber, maybe, but an awful lot of them.”
“It’s not the only place. It’s the biggest of them,” Tattletale said. “All the itinerant and teamless villains needed to settle somewhere eventually. Hollow Point is just loose enough they won’t necessarily kill each other, but self preservation keeps them together and following some basic rules. Some charisma here and there steers them.”
“New Brockton doesn’t count?” I asked.
“Different thing. Hollow Point is the largest place without a major player heading things. So far. New Brockton obviously has its major players securely in place.”
“And even though that neighborhood isn’t yours and isn’t even close to yours, you want me gone?”
“No,” she said. “You want you gone, if you know what’s good for you. You don’t want to get involved with that. You might make headway, but it won’t last. You’re outnumbered, they’ve got better resources, and if you ever succeed to any measurable degree, they can do things like call in the second of the asks they bought from me. Then they get an answer, and you have a bad day.”
“Alright,” I said. I glanced back. The man standing at the edge of the plaza hadn’t budged. The brute with the bag over his head hadn’t either.
“If it’s not me they ask, then it’s someone else, and you potentially have an even worse day. I know you hate my guts, but the reality is I’m one of the nice ones.”
There were a lot of responses I could give to that. I bit my tongue.
I released my tongue and said, “Hypothetically, if you don’t mind hypotheticals…”
“I’m a great fan of the hypothetical.”
“…If I asked you where you suggested going, if Cedar Point isn’t workable or if it’s untouchable because someone like you is going to step in before any heroes make headway… what places would you suggest? Outside of the established jurisdictions for teams.”
“I wouldn’t suggest anything. It’s a wild west out there and there’s no place for you out there. Not anymore.”
I folded my arms. I’d expected an answer like this.
“The people who win are the people with clout. While you were teaching school kids which direction a gun should point or hauling water out to the refugees still back on Bet, the rest of us were working. I and people like me were getting our hooks in and laying groundwork to build something behind the scenes. Taking over corner worlds, finding footholds in this world, starting up businesses, establishing reputations. The big hero teams have some influence because they’ve been recruiting and they staked out their territory. Hero and villain, we’re the major players, but we operate the same fundamental way. We’re scary. The thinkers, the masters, the masterminds, and the people with the biggest guns.”
“And Cedar Point?”
“Cedar Point, if you want to call it that, and its sister locations are late to the game. They have some clout because they have numbers and a bit of organization, and because they can all scrape together enough money to call in a big gun if they really truly need it. They probably won’t last. Someone nasty will step in and take over what they’re trying to build and it’s probably going to be ugly. The only reason they’ve lasted this long is that the rest of us have bigger fish to fry. They’re still a few rungs up the totem pole above you, mind you.”
“It’s too hard so it’s not worth trying?”
“Go home, Vicky,” she said, almost sighing the words. “Go back, figure out your family thing, keep trying to sign on to one of the big hero teams, you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually. Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine. Or retire. After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”
I closed my eyes.
“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches. Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”
I opened my eyes. “And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?”
“I’m talking reality, Vicky. It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there. The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant. This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do. You hit things. You can take a bullet, unless you’re doing something peculiar like keeping your forcefield down while standing between a man with a gun and Snuff here.”
“Heya,” Snuff said, raising a hand.
I didn’t move a muscle, didn’t react. Tattletale smiled.
“I know what you’re doing with your forcefield, Vicky. Just like I did back then. I know why you’re doing it, too. I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything. It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.”
I still had the paper in my hand. I tapped it against my upper arm, my arms still folded. “Four years, and you haven’t changed a bit since you raided that bank.”
“When we robbed that bank, I was doing multiple things all at once, laying groundwork for moves I wouldn’t make for weeks and months. If I haven’t changed from that, I think I’m doing okay,” she said.
“Are you, though?” I asked. “Your hair is messy, and you look tired.”
“I’m going to pretend you’re actually asking out of a concern for my well being, because if I didn’t pretend, I’d walk away, and I might even give some free-of-charge advice to those Hollow Point ruffians, telling them how to beat you if they run into you.”
“Entirely out of concern for your well being,” I said, with as little warmth and concern in my voice as I could muster. “Hometown respect, you know.”
“I’m one of the major players now. The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something. I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe. I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way. It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.”
“Sure,” I said. I paused. “Speaking of you showing up, I’m surprised the rest of your old team didn’t turn up too, for old time or camaraderie’s sake.”
She turned. With the way the light came through the tunnel, I could see the eye symbol on her chest in a slightly different shade of purple, hidden where the vertical bar met the horizontal, and the shadows meant I could no longer see her eyes or expression. Maintaining the same tone, she said, “No, you’re not surprised. You know full well they’re well positioned too. They’re doing their own things. They’re still a resource I can and will tap.”
“Gotcha,” I said.
“But I think you were trying to get a jab in, and that’s a good sign this conversation has run its course. I’ll wish you good luck in your endeavors, whether you join a big team or end up making those sandwiches. So long as you stay out of my way.”
“Out of curiosity,” I said. I saw her pause, just as she was about to turn to walk away. I continued, “Do you regret your part in what happened with my sister?”
“Do you?” she asked, without missing a beat.
“Absolutely,” I said, without any more hesitation than she’d shown.
“Be sure to call before you set foot in my neighborhood again. You and your friend have a nice flight home.”
Friend? My first thought was that she meant my autonomous forcefield, that she was personifying it.
Then I realized who she really meant. Just as surprising that she would be aware, but not as alarming.
She hadn’t answered my question, but I hadn’t expected an answer. She and Snuff walked to the parking lot, turning the corner there. Behind me, the gunman was walking back to his table.
My impression was that I was better off heading the way I’d come than I was leaving.
The moment I didn’t have the roof of the tunnel over my head, I took to the air.
I was high enough that I could see the entirety of Tattletale’s realm, and where the city was bleeding into and through the mountains and forest to connect to other areas and the remainder of the megalopolis. I could see the boats on the water, like ants on an anthill, the black smoke, and the patches that gleamed with a forced luster.
It wasn’t home. The worst of the fucking racists were gone, I had to hope, but the rest of the bad stuff seemed to be firmly entrenched in there.
I drew my phone from my pocket. I put the one earbud in, some music to drown out my thoughts while I steadied myself.
Did you record all of that?
A dark shape flew within a foot of me. For an instant, I thought it might have been one of the small birds that had arrived with Tattletale.
It was a sphere, consisting of several layers like an onion, alternating blue and red. The lens was a white circle, and as it roved, the layers moved to accommodate it looking around. Several fins extended out from the two most external layers, moving independently of one another to correct its position and hold eerily steady in the wind.
“Recorded it all,” the camera said, Kenzie’s voice with some synthesizer mixing things up.
“You got the sound, too?”
“Of course,” she said. “Can I listen to it?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet. Not when Tattletale operates the way she does. I’ve got a long flight back. Any way you can replay the conversation for me so I can listen to it on the way back, and figure out if anything needs redacting?”
“Without listening in?”
“I’d prefer if you listened in with the rest of the group. I’m concerned Tattletale can say something to me that affects one of you. She touched on some personal subjects, and I need to think about how much I’m comfortable sharing.”
“Not a problem. Give me a minute.”
I started my flight home, the camera flying alongside me.
I expected the camera to speak, when Kenzie was ready. I was a little surprised when it came through my ear-bud instead.
“…you’re bound to find a position somewhere eventually. Some cape will die in battle, and a seat will open up for you and you’ll do fine. Or retire. After what your sister did to you, nobody would blame you.”
I was still, listening to this. The others, Rain excepted, were gathered around the table. The library had picnic tables and benches strewn around, and some patio chairs for reading outdoors when the weather was good. They had arranged themselves on a mixture of seats, with Ashley standing. Kenzie’s laptop was sitting on a patio table, with Rain watching in through a halting, low-res webcam.
I’d been periodically pausing the conversation, to fill in gaps with basic knowledge and context, but I left things alone for this one.
“Do what any self-respecting twenty-one year old would do after failing to get into university, get a job waitressing or making hero sandwiches. Talk to your kids about the old Glory days.”
“Pause,” I said.
The recording paused.
“It took her a little while to get around to it, but it’s worth stressing that this is who she is. I thought about redacting these parts, but I think it’s important you know. The PRT thought she had the ability to sense weak points, primarily psychological ones. I agree with that assessment.”
“Your sister is Panacea, right?” Chris asked.
I tensed a bit.
“Chris,” Sveta said. “I think Victoria would prefer it if we glossed over that part.”
“It’s for context. Like she just said, it stresses who Tattletale is.”
“She was a healer,” I said. “Tattletale’s words caught her in a bad way at a bad time. Two months later, she had a mental breakdown. In part because of what Tattletale said. She put me in the hospital. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Resume recording,” Kenzie said.
“And what happens to Cedar Point, in this hypothetical?”
“I’m talking reality, Vicky. It’s going to be the same thing that was going to happen before the villains turned up, and it’s the same thing that’s going to happen when and if you try and summarily fail to change things there.”
“Pause,” I said. “She likes to act like she knows what’s going to happen, but it’s worth saying she can be surprised. She was surprised at the bank. She and her team pulled it off regardless, but… she was surprised by my arrival, and by my sister being there.”
“Worth keeping in mind,” Tristan said. “If we wind up fighting her.”
“I’m giving you all the info I can, so you can make an informed decision,” I said. “Resume.”
“-The area struggles, it withers, it becomes irrelevant. This isn’t your fight, and it’s not what you’re equipped to do. You hit things. You-”
Kenzie’s voice chimed in with a cheerful, synthesized, “Redacted!”
“Pause. Redacted because it’s a weak point,” I said. “Power-related.”
“I think I know,” Sveta said. “If this makes you doubt Victoria at all, I hope me vouching for her helps.”
“It helps,” Kenzie said. “Not that I was doubting her.”
“Resume,” I said.
“-I know you don’t belong in Cedar Point, and I know you’re just going to cause headaches for me and the actual heroes if you try anything. It’s not your skillset, it’s not your powerset.”
There was a small chime as a message appeared in the corner of the laptop. The recording paused in response to the message appearing.
Rain: Is it ours?
“That’s a conversation I want to have shortly,” I said. “Powers.”
“I’m looking forward to this,” Chris said.
Behind him, pacing a little, Ashley smiled.
“Resume,” I said.
“Redacted, redacted,” Kenzie’s synthesized voice played. Then Tattletale’s voice came up again. “I’m one of the major players now. The other major players call me for a hint when they’re stuck on something. I’m wealthy, well-positioned, and safe. I’m now sharing the love and bringing some of that security, stability, and safety to others, in my very, very roundabout way. It’s part of why I’m having this conversation with you.”
“Stop,” I said. The recording paused, and Kenzie hit a keyboard shortcut to close the window. “Everything that followed was small talk, some threats from her, and stuff about my sister I don’t want to get into. That’s Tattletale. That’s how she sees the world. I do believe her when she says there’s no good way to break into this scene. There are a lot of people who want to hold their positions and the power they’ve taken for themselves, and when you’ve cornered them, they’re going to call people like Tattletale for backup.”
“Or worse,” Ashley said. That was apparently what she’d fixated on, during the earlier part of the conversation.
“Or worse. People who are good at the roles they’ve taken on, well-proven by years of experience, people who can and will casually destroy you.”
“No matter what we do,” Sveta said, “We’re going to run into trouble. So we do nothing or we plan for it.”
“We plan for it,” Tristan said. “Ashley and I were talking about this. Something that might fit our niche, and gives key members of our team what they’re looking for.”
He looked at Kenzie as he said the last bit, and Kenzie visibly perked up.
“You have a game plan?” I asked.
“The start of one,” Tristan said. “Maybe.”
I thought about that for a moment. The others exchanged a few words, and a chime signaled Rain’s comment for the convo – he and Tristan had apparently exchanged some messages about the plan.
“Did you guys bring costume stuff?” I asked, when there was an opening. “Those of you that have it?”
That got me confirmation from about half of the group.
“I have spare, basic masks for those that need them,” I said. “I also have the start of my team outline written up on my laptop. What do you guys say we move to an area with some elbow room, you can show me enough of your powers that I know what to put in the document, and we talk about what you’ve got in mind?”
It might as well have been a rhetorical question. None of them were about to say no to that.